church marketing

An Open Letter to Church Shoppers

By Rev. Mindi

Dear Church Shopper,

I hate the term “church shopping.”  Shopping implies casual browsing, sampling, purchasing, consuming, returning and exchanging, etc. I know that you have been brought up in a consumer culture, and this is the language you are used to. You want to find the right church like you want to find the right pair of shoes: you want to make sure they are a good fit, and that they feel on the inside as good as they look on the outside. You want to find the church that feeds your needs, your desires, what you imagine church should be. And if your desires are not being met, if you are not being filled, you will move along.

The church is the body of Christ, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 12. It is a body. It is an organism. It is something you become part of and participate in, not sample and browse, consume and leave behind. Church is something you belong to, become part of, and it becomes essential and integral to your life. As Paul says, the hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you.”

Unfortunately, for many churches in the United States, they have also bought into the consumer culture. They try to put on a good show to feed your entertainment needs as well as your spiritual needs, but often the spiritual need they fill is to make you feel good about yourself. We all like to feel good. But at times we also need to be challenged and have a kick in the pants when we are not doing our part to help the poor and the oppressed around us.

Sometimes the mainline liberal church has bought into the consumer culture as well. Sometimes we use phrases like “social justice” and “missional” as catch phrases to lure you in to doing work in the community to help others, but we aren’t always good about it. Sometimes we are helping ourselves. Sometimes we don’t listen to the needs of the community and continue to do the same things we have always done rather than meeting the needs of those around us.  Sometimes what we are doing is not social, is not justice, and is not about serving others. Sometimes the church has used bait and switch tactics, without realizing it.

Church is not the pastor. Church is not the building. Church is the people, the body of Christ, coming together to be one. We shouldn’t be church because the building is pretty. We shouldn’t be church because the pastor is inspiring. We should be church because we recognize that we are the body, together, and we have need of each other. And our money shouldn’t be the most important thing—whether it is our individual giving or the church budget. Sometimes, I think the real problem in all of this is that we have given money power over all of us. That is consumer culture in a nutshell.

So please, stop shopping. Join a church community and belong. Of course that might take a little time finding—there is something to be said about theology and mission that connects you—but don’t go for a while and then leave because you hope to find something better elsewhere. Become part of the community. Belong to one another. Be the church. 

(And churches, let’s be the church, too. Let’s stop trying to show up one another. Let’s actually focus outward to do that social justice thing in being part of God’s beloved community on earth. Let’s worry less about entertaining and feeling good, and more about being the church together, beyond our building’s walls).

Be the body. Belong. Become.

I Don't Think Jesus is the Same Thing as a Big Mac

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Being a Disciple pastor for the past twenty-five years means that I have been a pastor during the time of the “mainline decline.”  A time when our congregations have been dwindling in numbers of people and amount of resources.  Smaller congregations have led to struggles in denominational structures as well.  There are no longer funds to support the structures that were erected over the years.  Back in 1991, when I first returned to Indiana, we had five full time ministers in our regional office.  We are now down to two full-time and one 2/3 time; effectively half of what our ministerial staff was twenty-three years ago.  Most people reading this article are familiar with this “mainline decline.”  There is no need to review the multiple opinions/causes for what has happened.  I simply want to tell you about a decision I came to as pastor who has spent his career in the midst of this decline.

In the beginning of my life as a pastor, I spent a lot of time attending Church Growth seminars designed to help congregations turn the decline around.  These events were most often designed to help congregations understand how to become “seeker friendly.”  The appearance of the building and proper signage were often topics of discussion.  Workshops about marketing strategy involving how to advertise the congregation were usually on the agenda.  I once attended such a workshop where we spent a good portion of time talking about how McDonalds continually develops new commercials to entice people through the golden arches.  I suppose the point was it didn’t matter if the product was a Big Mac or Jesus, what mattered was how fresh was the advertising.  Of course, how to introduce contemporary worship and use the latest technologies were subjects taught to packed rooms of pastors all hoping to turn around their declining congregations.  Saddleback and Rick Warren, Willow Creek and Bill Hybels, Southeast Christian and Bob Russell were the mega-churches and celebrity pastors who were cited as success stories.  Somewhere along the way, however, it occurred to me that most of what I was encountering in these seminars was about how to numerically grow an organization and not how to be the church, the living body of Christ in the world.  The diagnosed problem was the declining number of people in the pews and the declining funds in the offering plates.  So everything was developed to turn around that situation.  Success was measured with increasing numbers. 

Well, over time, the decision I made was that I didn’t want to spend any more energy trying to become a church marketing expert.  There is something that is quite unsavory to me when Jesus and a Big Mac are lumped together. I decided that as a pastor the most important thing I can do is help the church to live as the church.  That is, to focus on being the living body of Christ in this world; spending our energy on living as a community of grace and love.  Seeking to be the kind of community that others would want to join – not because of our slick advertising campaign, or because we have the best praise band, or because we have theater seats or a family-life center (gym), but because we care for each other and seek to care for all others.  Because we try to practice radical hospitality where everyone is truly welcome – which, in my experience, is quite different than being seeker friendly. 

The congregation I presently serve has experienced the effect of the decline.  Thirty years ago, back in the early 80’s, the church averaged close to 350 in attendance for Sunday morning worship.  That would fill the pews for two services.  Now we hover right around 200 people on Sunday morning which means there are a lot of empty seats in both services.  We have spent some time recently talking about what that means for the future, especially as we have reaffirmed our commitment to stay downtown in our small community.  I try to be honest with the folks.  I could tell them that if we tried “this program or this marketing strategy or this new worship idea” then we would see things turn around.  But the truth is, most of the congregations I know who tried all the “church growth strategies” continued to decline.  So I try to be honest and tell folks that I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that our focus should simply and only be on living our faith as completely as possible.  Our energy needs to be spent on ministries of compassion and justice, of caring for the weak, feeding the hungry,  providing shelter for those in need, welcoming the stranger and the one who is different.  Our focus in worship shouldn’t be on musical performance or technological wizardry, but the common human need to realize we are part of Something bigger than ourselves. 

A blessing in all this for me has been that I think the folks in this congregation also believe that this is the way we should proceed.  The decline is real and it means decisions, sometimes difficult ones have to be made, but there seems to be a focus in the church on living our faith as authentically as possible for as long as possible.  Recently, a young leader in our congregation said, “If we die staying faithful to who we understand God has called us to be, isn’t that what following Jesus to the cross is all about.”  I thought that was a pretty good observation.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I love to see new faces in the pews.  When they come they even get a visitor letter, a welcome packet, and a doorstep visit with chocolate chip cookies. (The Church Growth seminars weren't all bad.)  We work hard at making those new folks aware of the many ways that are available for them to get involved, the various learning and service opportunities.  But I try not to be anxious about it all anymore, that anxiousness takes away from the energy that is needed to live as the body of Christ in this world.  That’s where I want all my time, energy and resources directed.  For the truth is, that is where I have found life.  Honestly, that’s where I think the church will find it too.